Making a better future for the next generation in Michigan.

49th Out of 50: Can Michigan Turn Around Its Population Growth Problem?

Jan 8, 2024 | Children, Future, Michigan, People | 0 comments

Does Michigan have a population problem? Yes it does. Michigan’s rate of population growth ranked 49th among the 50 states in the last census. Michigan birth rates are low and many young people pack up and leave each year. Economists and demographers believe these trends will only accelerate in the decades ahead — unless there is a dramatic increase in population growth.

What does this mean for the children who will become adults in Michigan during the 2030s and 2040s? Many – especially the well-educated – will leave Michigan to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Those who stay will be burdened with the cost of maintaining the state’s infrastructure and caring for an aging population. It’s easy to imagine a downward cycle in the quality of life, leading to more people leaving the state, leading to an even lower quality of life.

Many recognize the problem. Gov. Whitmer appointed the bipartisan Growing Michigan Together Council in 2023 to analyze its causes and suggest remedies. In mid-December, the council issued its report. Over the New Year’s holiday, I had a chance to read it. Thought I should give you my readout….

What does the council’s report say is the problem?

Michigan has experienced 50 years of declining outcomes compared to the rest of the country:

  • Since 1970, Michigan’s share of the U.S. population has declined from 4.2% to 2.5% as other states have grown faster.
  • Median household income has declined from 18% above the national average to 9% below it.
  • The population of those under the age of 34 has actually declined between 1980 and 2020 – while the population over 65 increased 98%.
  • Michigan’s clout in the U.S. House of Representatives has declined from 19 members in 1970 to 13 today.

The report does a good job documenting the problem. It also does a good job refuting easy answers that come to mind. For instance, Michigan is not driving people and businesses away with high taxes. Its tax burden as a percentage of personal income is the fifth lowest in the nation. Its low tax rates, in fact, have limited its ability to provide amenities that add to the quality of life for citizens.

I think the council did a good job outlining the seriousness of the problem. This is not the legacy we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren.

How does the council think we can overcome this trend?

Many people put effort into this document — 27 distinguished members of the council, 60 people in workgroups, and 10,000 citizens who provided input. I hate to say an effort failed after a lot of good people put in many hours of effort, but I think they did. They failed because they did not give our state leaders a workable plan.

The council concluded that leaders should focus on three large projects to boost Michigan’s population:

  1. Establish Michigan as the Innovation Hub of the Midwest and America’s Scale-up State.
  2. Build a lifelong learning system focused on future-ready skills and competencies.
  3. Create thriving, resilient communities that are magnets for young talent.

Underneath these broad goals, though, I counted 83 bullet points of things to do. I suppose that’s an example of typical committee work. With so many people who have their pet ideas and vested interests, you are bound to get a long shopping list of recommendations. Some are quite specific and some quite vague (“Strengthen capacity [of education] at all levels”). Some – critics say — fall in the category of “Already tried that, didn’t work.” Some recommendations suggest reforming institutions, a process that always runs into roadblocks as people defend their turf.

No busy governor, legislator, or institutional leader can deal with 83 new priorities on top of their current stack of must-do work. The governor or the chair of the council could have asked the question, “If we could only reach political consensus and fund one thing, which of these will have the biggest impact on population growth?” Or, “Give me all your recommendations, but also rank them by expected impact on population growth.” That could still happen, but to my knowledge, it hasn’t yet.

What’s the answer?

Since the council did not set priorities between their three broad themes and 83 specific tasks, let me suggest a filter that could help. If we want vibrant population growth for Michigan, I believe our leaders should focus their time, attention, and limited resources on the needs and wants of young families. The reason is simple: attracting individuals adds to the population, but families multiply it.

If you attract or retain an individual, you add one to Michigan’s population. If you attract a family, you often get four or more. If grandma and grandpa come along to be close to their kids, you add a couple more. I believe the ideal target for Michigan should be attracting and retaining dual-income families with kids.

So, scratch all the economic development ideas – there are already more job openings than job seekers in Michigan. Drop the recommendations about public infrastructure and placemaking. Michigan’s infrastructure needs attention, but it’s a separate issue from population growth.

Instead, focus exclusively on the factors that would make Michigan a great place to raise a family. Let me propose a thought experiment. What if Michigan put together a pro-family package with the theme, “When you think about raising your family, think about Michigan.” Elements of the package could include (starred items are already in the Growing Michigan Together report):

  • Affordable housing*
  • Paid parental leave – if New York can do it, why not Michigan?
  • Economical child and elder care.*
  • Reproductive treatment and surrogacy assistance for couples who have a hard time conceiving.
  • 100% public and private (non-parochial) school choice – funding follows your children.
  • Well-funded screening and support for children with special needs.*
  • Free college including graduate studies — if Germany and twenty other countries can do it, why not Michigan?
  • Protection of reproductive rights and gender equality (done).

Some of these elements are already in place and just need to be publicized as part of a pro-family package. Some would require new programs and new funding. Some would just require policy changes. None of them would require major institutional reforms that could stall progress for another decade.

Could it work? Why not?

Note: A comprehensive review of 17,000 studies by Norwegian researchers provides strong evidence that family-oriented policies like those listed above have boosted fertility rates in a wide variety of countries.

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